Tag Archive: Outside Linebacker


Wisconsin Badgers Prospect Preview:

Joel Stave, QB, Sophomore- If my opinion means anything, then Joel Stave should be the starting quarterback of the Wisconsin Badgers. He has to have the inside track for the job after the way he played in the spring game, but the new Badgers Head Coach Gary Andersen likes his quarterbacks to be mobile so it’s no sure thing. However, Stave has all the size (6’5”, 219) and arm strength a Badger fan could ask for. His accuracy impressed me as well, but he has room to grow in that area (particularly on deep balls, which he is hit or miss on). On top of that, Stave essentially saved Wisconsin’s season last year by solidifying the quarterback position and giving them a semblance of a passing game, so I trust him to be an effective starter for the full length of a season if he can stay healthy. Stave completed 58.8 % of the 119 passes he threw a year ago and started 6 games. He passed for 1,104 yards, 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in those games. He may not be perfect, but if the Badgers can run the ball effectively they won’t need him to be. I’ll take him over any Badger quarterback I’ve watched since I started watching college football with the obvious exception of Russell Wilson. Now, if Stave can’t stay healthy the Badgers do have a reliable option in Curt Phillips, a 6th year senior, that they can trust to take snaps at quarterback. Still, if I have to choose between Stave and “Curt Tebow” as I took to calling him during some of his late game heroics last year I’ll take Stave and not think twice.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Sophomore- Gordon is a kid that I heard about during the spring game last year and I immediately was intrigued. A 6’1”, 206 pound kid with what I believe is sub 4.5 speed? Sign me up. Gordon was impressive last year and despite being behind both Montee Ball and James White he racked up 621 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns with an INSANE 10 yard per carry average. Not only that, but he added 151 yards and a 21.6 yard average per kick return as well. Gordon is an impressive back with the strength to run through tackles, impressive burst and enough long speed to rip off big chunks of yardage. He’s going to be the next great Wisconsin running back and I’ve been saying it since last August. I still feel the same way, and I can’t wait to watch him split the carries with James White this year.

James White, RB, Senior- White is an interesting player, because as a sophomore he really ran into the “sophomore slump” that talented freshmen run into at times. The 5’10”, 197 pound back ran for “only” 713 yards (5.06 ypc) and 6 touchdowns after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. He got back on track as a junior, rushing for 806 yards (6.45 ypc) and 12 touchdowns despite carrying the ball less than he did as a sophomore (125 carries vs 141 carries). He’s Wisconsin’s speed back and he has legitimate sub 4.5 speed, he’s very quick, and he has surprising strength for a smaller back. Not only that, but he’s a reliable and dangerous receiver out of the backfield who figures to be featured more in this role as a senior. I like White, but I can’t quite shake that sophomore slump season from my memory despite the bounce-back year he had last year. I’m still hoping to see that absolutely dynamic freshman again, and I hope he comes back for one last hurrah this season.

Jared Abbrederis, WR, Senior- Abbrederis is a player I’ve been rooting for since he was a freshman. He’s a former walk-on who actually got playing time in one receiver sets over Nick Toon even as a freshman while Toon was a junior. He’s a high effort, high work ethic player who may not be the biggest or the fastest, but he finds a way to get the job done. He’s listed at 6’2”, 188 pounds but I think he will measure in at 6’1” or maybe even 6’0” even. He’s probably going to run in the 4.55 range for his 40 yard dash time so he’s not a burner, but he runs good routes, has good quickness and reliable hands. If he gets drafted I think it will be at the end of the draft, likely in the 6th-7th round range, but it’s entirely possible he ends up signing with a team as an undrafted free agent. Still, Abbrederis has been a reliable receiver for the Badgers since he arrived on campus and he produced 49 receptions, 837 yards and 5 touchdowns last year despite the carousel at quarterback throughout the season.

Kenzel Doe, WR/KR, Junior- Doe was flying under my radar as he only hauled in 16 receptions for 121 yards as a sophomore but I expect his role on the team to increase significantly this year. Doe is a dynamic threat in the slot and as a return man and I expect him to be utilized in a number of ways to take advantage of his speed. Doe is listed at 5’8”, 170 pounds, so he is quite undersized, but he has plenty of speed and quickness to help compensate for that. As a return man he averaged 27.9 yards per kick return and 12.4 yards per punt return, including an 82 yard touchdown against his new Head Coach’s former team Utah State. He had a very good spring game and I fully expect to see him as Wisconsin’s primary slot receiver, kick returner and hopefully punt returner as well. If Stave wins the job I think Doe will easily exceed his 16 receptions and 121 yards as a sophomore.

Jacob Pedersen, TE, Senior- Pedersen isn’t the same prospect that Lance Kendricks was at the position a couple of years ago, but Pedersen is a poor-mans Kendricks to me. He’s not the same athlete, he doesn’t have the same upside, but he is reliable in the pass game and as a run blocker. He’s not going to be a dominant in line blocker at the next level, but as an H-Back type blocker he will be just fine. At 6’4”, 237 pounds he’s not a huge guy but he has enough athleticism for me to think he’s going to get day 3 consideration. He isn’t a flashy player that does anything spectacularly well, but he is solid in all areas.

Ryan Groy, OT/OG, Senior- Groy is a player I was initially worried about sliding outside to tackle, but I think he will be able to hold up alright there as a senior. It’s tough to project how the 6’5”, 318 pounder will do on the blind side since I’ve never seen him play there, but he has enough lateral agility, good enough length and a strong enough anchor for me to think he can handle it. Originally I viewed him as only a guard, but after watching him and taking notes I think he might have a shot at playing tackle at the next level. That is all obviously projection, and I’m certainly not sold on him as a NFL left tackle, but he is carrying a day 2 grade from me into the season without a doubt. I’m excited to see what he can do, because as a guard he showed pretty good hand placement, a good anchor, and was smooth getting to the second level. He doesn’t strike me as a mauler in the run game, and is at his best when he can double team a defender, seal him off, cut him, or combo block and get to the second level. He’s not a great puller, but he looked solid when asked to do it. I think he’s going to be a good ZBS fit at the next level, and could potentially be a very good right tackle in a scheme that uses a lot of those concepts. I can’t wait to see what he can do outside at tackle this year.

Rob Havenstein, OT, Junior- Havenstein was a bit of a problem area for Wisconsin’s line last year but I see potential when I watch him. The most surprising thing about the 6’8”, 342 pound lineman was how quick he was out of his stance as a pass blocker. He gets good depth, is often the first one out of his stance, and doesn’t look like he will struggle with speed off the edge if he can improve his technique over the next two seasons. He has the length, he has the size, he just needs to work on some of his mechanical issues. He ends up on the ground a lot as a result of poor hand placement and I’m not sure if he’s a natural knee bender at this point. He’s obviously huge and is effective when he blocks down on defensive tackles and can wash them out thanks to his size and strength, but he’s not great at getting to the second level. He showed some ability to recover in pass protection which was encouraging, but I’m going to be watching him closely next year to see how he does when he is tested by quality pass rushers.

Kyle Costigan, OG, Junior- It’s official- the Kyle Costigan bandwagon starts behind me. I am driving it and there’s no one that can convince me otherwise. I LOVE this kid’s game. He’s listed at 6’4”, 313 pounds but he moves like he weighs 280. He is such a smooth puller, he is a text book combo blocker, he gets to the 2nd level easily, and he is a very good cut blocker. Not only that, but in the Ohio State game he absolutely held his own in 1 on 1 situations with Johnathan Hankins which is no easy task. He was only a sophomore, but he was awfully impressive to me in the games I watched. He looks like a potential 1st round draft pick if he continues to improve and get stronger. Look out for him.

Dan Voltz, C, Freshman- Voltz is a player I obviously haven’t watched any of yet but the coaches seem to be high on him and he’s being pegged as a potential future 1st rounder following in the steps of Peter Konz (2nd rounder) and Travis Frederick (1st rounder, even if everyone hated the pick). He’s listed at 6’4”, 301 pounds and is supposed to be very smart based on what I’ve read about him. It’s going to be tough to pick up where Frederick left off from a football IQ standpoint but I’m excited to see what he can do as the only underclassman starting on Wisconsin’s offensive line at what some consider the most critical position.

Ethan Hemer, DE/DT, Senior- Hemer is a player I’m excited to watch this year because I think the 3-4 scheme that the Badgers are installing as their new base defense will play to his strong suits. He’s listed at 6’6”, 296 pounds so he is essentially the prototype 3-4 defensive end. Last year he managed 24 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL and 3 pass defections in his first year as a starter. I expect him to be more disruptive this year and I think 3-4 teams are going to be intrigued by him as a possible day 3 selection.

Beau Allen, DT, Senior- Allen is the key cog in Wisconsin’s defense this year because if he can hold up versus double teams in the middle and free up Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong to play clean versus the run then the Badgers will be a much better defense in 2013. Allen certainly has the size to do it as he is listed at 6’3”, 335 and is one of the key players returning on defense. He managed 37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 5 TFL and 2 pass break-ups as a junior and while I think that his statistics might not be the same as a year ago at the end of the season he may have an even bigger impact. He’s going to see a lot of double teams this year and if he can hold up at the point of attack he’s going to be very attractive to a lot of 3-4 teams at the next level.

Brendan Kelly, DE/OLB, Senior- Kelly is a player I’m really rooting for because he has been through so much during his time with the Badgers. He sustained a serious groin injury as a freshman but attempted to play through it before realizing that he had torn four muscles off of his pelvis, and missed the final conference game the Badgers played that season. When he attempted to come back during fall camp the next year he aggravated the injury, leading to additional surgery and time on the sidelines. He had three total surgeries on his groin and he missed time with a hand injury as well. He stayed healthy (as far as I know) last season and the 6’6”, 258 pounder managed 28 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 TFL and 2 pass break-ups on the year. I’m not sure he’s going to be considered before the end of day 3, but the fact that he even has the chance to be drafted after all the injuries he has sustained is impressive. I’m really hoping he has a break-out year this year rotating with Tyler Dippel at outside linebacker.

Chris Borland, ILB, Senior- It’s hard to believe Borland is finally a senior, but it’s happened. It feels to me like he’s been at Wisconsin forever, but now the “short not small” 5’11”, 242 pound linebacker is getting ready to graduate and attempt a jump to the NFL. Borland’s size is going to hurt him in the eyes of evaluators but he’s strong, moves well and is a very good tackler. He has exceeded 100 tackles the last two years, including 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL and 6 pass break-ups as a junior. Borland doesn’t excel at shedding blocks and can be engulfed by bigger players at times, but he has a good motor and plays the run well. He’s a good blitzer as well, but I don’t completely trust him in pass coverage. I don’t think he’s a liability there, but I think he still has room to improve that part of his game. He’s not going to be a fit for every defensive scheme in the NFL, and many will doubt that he even has starter upside. I’ve seen him play too much to say he doesn’t, but I don’t think he’s going to be given a starting gig. He’s going to have to make the team as a likely day 3 selection and claw his way to playing time. I think he can do it though, and hopefully I’ll be able to see him show his skills at an All-Star game this winter.

Ethan Armstrong, ILB, Senior- I’m not very familiar with Armstrong’s game as last season was his first as a starter, but the undersized 6’2”, 216 pound linebacker started all 14 games last season and managed 93 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and an interception. I don’t think he’s the same prospect that Borland is and isn’t nearly as filled out considering he is listed as 3 inches taller than him yet he reportedly weighs 26 pounds less. If he can fill out his frame he might have a NFL future, but there’s no way he can last in the NFL weighing under 220 pounds.

Dezman Southward, FS, Senior- Southward is the only returning starter in Wisconsin’s secondary but from all I’ve read about him he has really taken to his new leadership role as the veteran among the DB’s. The most surprising thing to me about Southward was that he only picked up football as a senior in high school (he previously played basketball) and didn’t even play safety. He has had to start from scratch as far as learning the game and as a fifth year senior he has only been playing the game for 6 years. The 6’2”, 213 pound safety is obviously a good athlete and he is being touted as a potential star this year. In his first season as a starter Southward totaled 69 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception from his free safety position. This year he will be expected to be even better in coverage and help Wisconsin create more turnovers.

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Iowa Hawkeyes Prospect Preview:

Mark Weisman, RB, Junior- Weisman is a 6’0”, 236 pound power back that helped save Iowa’s rushing attack last season. He walked on as a fullback after deciding to leave the Air Force and attend Iowa (playing for Iowa was “his dream”) and after injuries to two running backs against Northern Iowa Weisman was the next man up and he never looked back. He rushed 159 times for 815 yards and 8 touchdowns and added 15 receptions for 90 yards and another score as a receiver. Weisman won’t be confused for a speed back, but he seems to have pretty good vision, surprising quickness for someone who is supposed to be a fullback, and he runs hard with good pad level. It’s not surprising to see him run through tackles or run defenders over altogether when you watch him run. He figures to be “the guy” for Iowa this year, and it’s a pretty awesome story. Whether he will show the athleticism and skill set to be a NFL running back is another thing, but I am looking forward to seeing him run the ball and help stabilize the Iowa running game this season.

Kevonte Martin-Manley, WR, Junior- Most people would have assumed that Keenan Davis led the Hawkeyes in all statistical categories last season but in reality Martin-Manley (KMM) led the team in receptions (52), tied Davis for the lead in receiving yards (571) and led the team with 2 touchdowns. Obviously those aren’t earth shattering numbers, but the 6’0”, 205 pound receiver showed some promise as a possible slot receiver last year. He’s still only a junior, so I am looking forward to seeing if he can be “the guy” at wide receiver for the Hawkeyes this year. They still haven’t settled on a starting quarterback yet, so there’s a good chance KMM will have to deal with uneven quarterback play for another year if not two. Also, keep an eye on Jordan Cotton as a wide receiver and return man.

CJ Fiedorowicz, TE, Senior- I have been waiting for Fiedorowicz to break out for the past two years and while I’m not sure it will happen this year I don’t think it will be because he lacks talent. The 6’7”, 265 pound tight end has had to deal with some pretty bad quarterback play the last couple of years and it doesn’t figure to get much better now that they are going to have a first time starter this year. Say what you will about James Vandenberg, but he threw every pass for Iowa last season. The Hawkeyes will be lucky to have that same kind of consistency this year in my opinion. That spells trouble for Fiedorowicz who, while being an excellent blocker, only totaled 45 receptions for 433 yards and 1 touchdown last year. He’s one of the most talented tight ends in the country, but it doesn’t show on the stat sheet because he doesn’t have anyone to get him the ball. Fiedorowicz is essentially an extension of the offensive line as a blocker which is a great asset for a team who runs a traditional pro style offense like Iowa, and it will make him appealing to teams like the Steelers in the NFL. For a full scouting report on Fiedorowicz read Matt Mochal’s write-up on him and follow him on Twitter @itsasabotage.

Brandon Scherff, OT, Junior- Scherff is coming off of a broken leg but he was 100% in the spring so he should be fine for the 2013 season. He’s not the same athlete that Van Sloten is but he is stronger and better in the run game. He’s shown an effective cut block and seems comfortable with zone and man concepts which is good, and he also has shown he can drive block a bit and generate push off the ball at times. He looks less comfortable in his pass sets though and looked slow off the ball against NIU, though that may have just been because Alan Baxter was flying off the edge so quick. But he did look late off the ball a number of times and wasn’t getting great depth in his initial drop or his kick slide in general, and it led to him being off balance at times. I think Scherff is more of a RT in the NFL, and I honestly think Van Sloten might be a better traditional fit at LT than Scherff is given his athleticism and some of his issues generating push in 1 on 1 situations. Scherff is the better run blocker, but I’ll give Van Sloten the edge in pass pro. Scherff’s main goal has to be to stay healthy, and it’s clear his presence was missed in the running game after his injury. If he stays healthy the run game should be fine, but I still have questions about him in pass protection.

Brett Van Sloten, OT, Senior- The first thing I noticed about Van Sloten (or BVS) is that he is an impressive athlete and I speculated that he had to be a former TE. Turns out he was, he played tight end and defensive end in high school. He is listed at 6’7”, 300 pounds and he moves like a defensive end. BVS needs to improve his anchor and get stronger in the lower half, but boy does he have potential thanks to that athletic ability. Seems to have pretty good length, needs to play with a bit better pad level, but his movement skills are awfully impressive for a 6’7” tackle. I’m not sure I saw him get speed rushed effectively once against Penn State, and while he doesn’t have much buzz around him right now I think he’s a nice sleeper prospect at the offensive tackle position. He’s not projected to get drafted now, but if he’s as athletic as he looks to me then I think he will creep up boards over the course of the year. If he can improve his anchor and work on his pad level a little bit I think that will help him even more.

Austin Blythe, Sophomore- Blythe is listed at 6’3”, 300 pounds but he looks smaller than that to me, likely 6’2” or so. He also seems to have short arms which concerns me, but he has a pretty stocky build. He started 9 games at right guard last year as a redshirt freshman and was a 1st team freshman All-American. He held his own for a freshman, but he has some room for improvement. He seems to lack lateral quickness and really struggled against players that were athletic enough to beat him with quickness and upfield speed. Jordan Hill gave him a lot of trouble, and it had to do with his quickness and burst. He is an effective combo blocker and he can get to the second level effectively, but he struggled at times in pass protection and giving up interior pressure frequently leads to disaster on pass plays. Blythe is moving inside to center this year so it will be interesting to see if he is stronger and more adept at handling quicker pass rushers. I think he is smart enough to handle the pivot and some of his issues at guard may not be as obvious at center. Only time will tell, but Iowa needs to elevate their interior line play if they are going to have any success as an offense. That starts with Blythe.

Dominic Alvis, DE, Senior- Alvis is a returning starter who is listed at 6’4”, 265 pounds. He’s kind of your typical Iowa defensive lineman who is a high effort, technically sound player that doesn’t have an abundance of athletic ability or upside. I think his best bet is to bulk up and attempt to stick as a 3-4 defensive end because he doesn’t have the quickness or edge speed to consistently win as a 4-3 edge rusher at the next level. He seems to use his hands effectively but he is regularly late off the ball and he doesn’t have the quick-twitch athleticism to compensate for it. He seems to have a good feel for getting his hands up to try to impact passing lanes, but he’s not going to offer much as a pass rusher in a 4-3 alignment.

Carl Davis, DT, Junior- Carl Davis is my guy. Last year I was watching Iowa’s defense and while they didn’t have much talent outside of Micah Hyde #71 stuck out to me consistently. Davis is listed at 6’5”, 315 pounds and is a surprisingly good athlete for such a large man. He was flashing a lot of upside but he was a raw sophomore that needed to work on his pad level, improve his technique and get more playing time. He is projected to be a starter this fall and that might have something to do with him dominating in the spring. While he struggled against the undersized James Ferentz in practice last year, this year Davis is the one doing the dominating thanks to supposedly better pad level. This will be his first year as a starter and he only had 14 tackles and 1.5 TFL last year, but expect a BIG statistical uptick in 2013. Even if he doesn’t total a lot of sacks or tackles for loss you can bet his impact will be felt on Iowa’s defense. He’s likely going to draw consistent double teams which could free up other players to make plays, particularly Iowa’s three senior linebackers. I’m a big Davis fan and if the rumors about his improved pad level are true we could all be in for a treat whenever we watch Iowa play.

James Morris, MLB, Senior- Morris is the middle linebacker for the Hawkeyes and he was 2nd on their team in tackles last year with 113 as well as 1.5 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception. Contrary to all of those pass break-ups I don’t think the 6’2”, 240 pound linebacker excels in coverage. He isn’t a great athlete and as a result he doesn’t have great range, and he takes some false steps when asked to drop in coverage. He isn’t bad passing defenders off in zone and gets solid depth, but he’s not going to be a playmaker in coverage in the NFL in my opinion. He seems to be a smart player but doesn’t shed blocks well and gets caught up in the trash too much for my liking versus the run. This was particularly obvious against Michigan State this year, and Le’Veon Bell benefited greatly from it. Morris is a reliable tackler and he’s got a good motor, but I just don’t see a starting NFL linebacker based off of what I’ve seen from him so far. He’s got another year to prove me wrong, but I’m not high on him right now.

Anthony Hitchens, OLB, Senior- Hitchens is the Iowa linebacker I am least familiar with but he led the Hawkeyes in tackles with 124 last year, adding 1 sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. He is listed at 6’1”, 233 pounds and I believe last year was his first as a starter. I’m looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table as a senior and a second year starter, but right now I’m not overly intrigued by him. Still, his production last year meant I needed to try to do my due diligence on him.

Christian Kirksey, OLB, Senior- Kirksey is my favorite linebacker on the Hawkeyes and is one of their better defensive prospects overall in my opinion. I think he is the best athlete of the three senior ‘backers and it shows in coverage. First of all, despite being listed at 6’2”, 235 pounds he looks like a safety on the field which is both a good and a bad thing for a linebacker. I haven’t seen him shed blocks particularly effectively, but he gives good effort in the run game and attacks which I like to see. He’s got better range than Morris and looks more comfortable dropping into zone coverage to me. I’m not sure if he is going to be a starting linebacker in the NFL, but I think he has a better skill set to do it than Morris or Hitchens. We will see if I’m right over the course of the year, but right now Kirksey is my top linebacker on the Hawkeyes.

Illinois Fighting Illini Prospect Preview

Nathan Scheehaase, QB, Senior- Scheelhaase feels like he has been at Illinois forever to me (and he has, this is his 5th and final year with the team) and while he showed some potential as a freshman he has largely been unimpressive in the years since. That may have something to do with changing offensive coordinators every year (we saw what that did to Alex Smith, after all) but blaming his unimpressive accuracy and relatively poor decision making on the constant change at offensive coordinator doesn’t add up to me. Still, it looks like the 6’3”, 200 pound senior will be the starter over Riley O’Toole (who threw four, yes FOUR, interceptions in the spring game) in spite of throwing for just 1,361 yards on 246 attempts (60.6% completion) with 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions (usually you hope for the direct opposite ratio). He doesn’t have a very strong arm, he’s not accurate, he doesn’t protect the football, and he doesn’t have a lot of poise in the pocket. Sounds like the next Andrew Luck right? I don’t think Scheelhaase will have a great senior year, but I’ve never been a big fan and I will be very surprised if he is drafted whether it is at quarterback or wide receiver.

Wes Lunt, QB, Sophomore- I really wish Lunt could start this year but unfortunately we will all have to wait a year. I was a fan of Lunt at Oklahoma State and was rooting for him to win the starting job despite being a true freshman. He had an up and down freshman year, but upon realizing that he wouldn’t be the starter he elected to transfer. He’s still young, and he will have a year to learn Cubit’s system before he has to play, and I think he has some upside. He’s more of a pocket passer which theoretically fits Cubit’s system better, and I think he has much better arm strength than Scheelhaase. So I for one am excited to see if he can win the starting job over O’Toole (god I hope so) so I can see what he brings to the table for two or three years as the starter.

Donovonn Young, RB, Junior- I have been on the Donovonn Young bandwagon since he was a freshman and I’m not hopping off now. The offensive line was underwhelming last year (despite my fandom of Hugh Thornton) and Young only got 131 carries which he turned into 571 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those obviously aren’t eye popping numbers, but he also led the team in receptions with 38 and added 172 receiving yards and another touchdown through the air. He’s a complete back and at 6’0”, 220 he is a load to bring down in the open field. I’d say he has about 4.5 speed, some quickness, reliable hands out of the backfield, and he runs hard which I like to see. I don’t think he’s on Rashard Mendenhall’s level yet, but I still believe he has similar upside. If the Illini can solidify their offensive line I think Young could surprise a lot of people, he’s a talented back.

Justin Hardee, WR, Sophomore- The Illini have two senior wide receivers in Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford, but neither one jumped off the screen to me when I watched Illinois during the season or in the spring game. The kid who DID jump off the screen was then freshman, now sophomore Justin Hardee. Hardee is listed at 6’1”, 190 pounds and I’m not sure how fast he is, but boy does he have good hands. He was snagging passes outside of his frame like it was nothing in the spring game and actually went over 100 yards in the game despite O’Toole’s ineptitude. Hardee is buried on the depth chart behind more experienced players like Lankford, Harris, and Martize Barr, but I think Hardee has more upside than all of them. He had 17 receptions for 192 yards last year as a true freshman, but I’m hoping he gets more playing time because I seriously think he might have the best hands on the team.

Jon Davis, TE, Junior- Jon Davis is an interesting case because while he showed a lot of promise as a freshman his production dropped from 22 receptions, 187 yards and 1 touchdown as a freshman to just 9 receptions, 88 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore. In fact, he had 12 more attempts RUSHING than he did receptions which I could hardly believe. He’s clearly an impressive athlete as he managed 102 yards and 1 touchdown on his 21 attempts, but I think all Illinois fans want to see him become more of a focus in the passing game as a junior and a senior. He’s got a lot of upside, but the 6’3”, 240 pound H-Back just hasn’t lived up to it yet. Hopefully he takes a big step forward as a junior, but until the quarterback play is elevated it’s going to be hard for him to put up significant numbers.

Alex Hill, C, Junior- Hill is a favorite of alioneye.com and I have to say I’m intrigued with him as well. He’s listed at 6’3”, 325 pounds and I love that size in a Center. He doesn’t have much previous experience having only started 3 games in his first two seasons, but he played in 11 games last year including one start at left guard. It sounds like the Illini haven’t had the luxury of developing their young linemen and instead have essentially been playing them before they were likely ready which explains some of their poor offensive line play last year. I’m still skeptical that their offensive line will be much better this year, but they return three starters (though Simon Cvijanovic will be moving to left tackle full time) and Hill is replacing Graham Pocic at center. Since Hill doesn’t have a lot of starting experience I’m not very familiar with his game, but he’s definitely one of the guys I’ll be keeping an eye on up front.

Simon Cvijanovic, OT, Junior- Cvijanovic caught my eye both because of his last name and because he has 15 career starts (13 at right tackle, just two at left tackle) but he will be the starting left tackle for the Illini this year. Cvijanovic is listed at 6’5”, 295 pounds and has shown me some upside as a wall-off blocker, but I’m interested to see more of him from a pass protection perspective at left tackle. He doesn’t look overly comfortable in his kick slide on the left side, though he does seem to have pretty good lateral agility. He’s still a relative unknown to me but he’s one of Illinois’ top returning linemen so he’s definitely on my watch list.

Houston Bates, DE, Junior- Bates is a linebacker who has been converted to defensive end so his speed and athleticism isn’t the question mark. He’s listed at 6’3”, 240 pounds so he will need to gain some weight if he’s going to hold up at defensive end in the Big-10. However, if there’s one player who I think could provide some boost to Illinois’ pass rush this year I think it is Bates. I don’t have any tape to base that on since he’s moving to a new position this year, but I’m excited to see what he can produce from a pass rush perspective.

Jonathan Brown, OLB, Senior- Brown is the top senior or junior prospect on the Illini in my opinion. I’ve been watching him since he was a sophomore and while he had a great sophomore year he hasn’t quite lived up to my expectations for him. Some of that has to do with injuries, but if he can stay healthy I think he can recreate his sophomore season where he had 108 tackles and 18.5 TFL. He was a force that year, but injuries robbed him of 3 games and 5 starts as a junior. The 6’1”, 235 pound linebacker still managed 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7 TFL and 1 pass break-up as a junior though. Brown may not be the biggest linebacker but he is a good athlete, a reliable tackler, and he has a high football IQ. He struggles when asked to shed blocks and can get caught up in trash at times, but I think he projects pretty well to a weak-side linebacker role at the next level. He has day 2 upside, but he needs to stay healthy and show what he can do all year to help revive his stock a bit.

Mason Monheim, MLB, Sophomore- Monheim had a great freshman year and honestly watching him I wouldn’t have guessed that he was a true freshman. He had some trouble trying to spy Braxton Miller in the Ohio State game, but that’s not an easy task for anyone, much less a true freshman, to accomplish. He’s another relatively undersized linebacker who is listed at 6’1”, 230 pounds and he led the team with 86 tackles last year. He also added 1.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up and an interception. He seems to have similar instincts as Jonathan Brown and also struggles to shed blocks much like Brown does. He has room to grow though, so he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Prospect Preview:

Taylor Martinez, QB, Senior- Martinez is well known at this point and enters his senior year with 24 starts on his resume. He’s still not very accurate as a passer and his arm strength is limited. He’s listed at 6’1”, 210 pounds and does have the athleticism to pick up yardage with his legs (obviously, Nebraska uses the option in their run game) but he’s not a rare athlete. He’s going to have to attempt a transition to wide receiver to make it in the NFL, and I’m not sure he has the skill set to thrive there. He was certainly more efficient last year as he passed for 2,871 yards, completed 62% of his passes, and threw 23 TD’s and only 12 interceptions. Still, I’m not a fan of his passing mechanics (particularly his throwing motion, though he has worked to improve it) and I don’t think he’s a NFL QB. There is one player on Nebraska’s roster that I think has that potential though…

Tommy Armstrong, QB, Freshman- Full disclosure: Until a few days ago I had absolutely no idea who Tommy Armstrong was. I’m not that tapped in to high school recruiting, so I had never heard of him. However, judging by Nebraska’s spring game (his first playing time with Nebraska, as he redshirted as a true freshman) as well as his high school highlights he is going to be special. He is listed at 6’1”, 220 pounds, he’s athletic, he is already a better passer than Taylor Martinez in my opinion (he’s better at pitching on the option as well) and boy does he have an arm. It’s not the strongest I’ve ever seen, but it’s strong. Not only does he have a strong arm, but based on everything I’ve seen, he’s also accurate. He has made a few throws to the sideline placing the ball perfectly in between zone defenders for his receiver to make the catch that made my jaw drop. He can throw on the run, he’s shown that he can be lethal off of play action, and I have to admit watching him he reminded me of Russell Wilson. I know that’s excessively high praise, but that’s who came to mind watching him play. He’s got a lot of ability and he’s almost completely unproven, but I am extremely intrigued. I think he can be a star.

Ameer Abdullah, RB/KR, Junior- Now that I’ve completed my fan boy rambling about Tommy Armstrong, let me start my fan boy rambling about Ameer Abdullah. He didn’t get a ton of touches on offense as a freshman, but seeing him return kicks and punts was enough for me. I was on the bandwagon. Thankfully, Nebraska made him one of the focal points of their offense as a sophomore and he made it worth their while. The 5’9”, 190 pound back led the team with 1,137 yards, averaged 5 yards per carry and scored 8 touchdowns. He added 24 receptions for 178 yards and 2 touchdowns, a 21.2 yard average per kick return (which was actually down SIGNIFICANTLY from his freshman year average of 29.35, likely due to the significant increase in his workload) and an impressive 13.1 yard average per punt return including another touchdown. Abdullah may not have elite size, but he’s very fast and explosive. Not only that, but he is very shifty in the open field and his lower body strength and balance is obvious as he can run through arm tackles easily. I was also impressed with him not only as a receiver, but as a pass blocker. He made a few great blitz pick-ups and isn’t afraid to be physical which I really like. He’s my favorite draft eligible prospect on Nebraska’s roster and I am looking forward to seeing him play even more as a junior.

Imani Cross, RB, Sophomore- Cross is going to be the #2 behind Abdullah, but I think there’s the potential for a “thunder and lightning” combo since Cross is listed at 6’1”, 225 pounds but is a pretty good athlete. He runs hard, and last year he produced 324 yards on just 55 carries as well as 7 touchdowns. He impressed me in the spring game and I think Abdullah and Cross are going to be up there with Melvin Gordon and James White as the top running back duo in the Big-10.

Kenny Bell, WR, Junior- Kenny Bell may very well be the top prospect on Nebraska’s roster, though Abdullah is my favorite. He’s listed at 6’1”, 185 pounds but he has impressive speed, very good hands, adjusts to poorly thrown balls well, and clearly has good concentration. He may not be a 4.4 flat guy, but I was impressed with his speed and quickness. I haven’t seen him enough to accurately evaluate his route running, but he is definitely Nebraska’s best wide receiver given that he had 50 receptions, 863 yards and 8 touchdowns as a sophomore. He also added 325 kick return yards with an average of 23.2 yards per return. He’s a playmaker and I’m excited to see what he can do as a junior.

Jamal Turner, WR, Junior- Turner is Nebraska’s other main playmaking receiver and is actually listed at the exact same height and weight as Kenny Bell. Like Bell, he has impressive speed, good hands and he has shown me a lot of shiftiness in the open field. The 6’1”, 185 pound receiver totaled 32 receptions, 417 yards and 3 touchdowns as a sophomore and figures to produce even more as a junior. If he and Bell come back for their senior seasons they could be a truly terrifying duo with Tommy Anderson passing them the ball. Hell, they’ll be quite a duo as juniors with Taylor Martinez this year.

Brent Qvale, OT, Senior- Qvale started 13 games for the Huskers last year in his first year as a starter. He’s listed at 6’7”, 315 pounds and was actually a very good basketball player in high school, reportedly averaging 20+ points and 10+ rebounds a game as a senior. I’m not sure he’s going to be able to stick at LT in the NFL, but he could slide over to right tackle or maybe inside to guard if he can’t stick outside. He doesn’t look like a great athlete on the edge to me, but he is surprisingly solid when asked to cut block and will at least get a shot to stick outside at the next level. He had some issues against UCLA because of their athleticism in their front 7, and I don’t think he’s a prototypical “mauler” that can compensate for his less than stellar upside as a pass rusher. He’s a late Day 3 guy to me right now, but I haven’t watched enough to write a full report on him yet.

Jeremiah Sirles, OT, Senior- In my opinion Sirles is actually the better tackle prospect between him and Qvale. I think he’s the better athlete, and he has a lot more starting experience and less injury question marks. Sirles started 14 games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman before not starting any games as a sophomore. As a junior he re-emerged as the started on the right side where he started all 14 games a year ago. Sirles plays both right and left tackle for the Huskers, replacing Qvale on the left side at times, and looked pretty comfortable there. I don’t know that he can stick there at the next level, but I believe he has the athleticism to play right tackle at least. He’s listed at 6’6”, 310 pounds and moves pretty well for that size. I’m not sure where I have him graded at right now, but he’s probably in the 4th-5th round conversation at this point.

Spencer Long, OG, Senior- Initially when I was watching Long I was actually really unimpressed. Much like with Khaled Holmes last summer I saw him ending up on the ground more than I would like and bending at the waist too much when he was trying to drive block. However, after I got past my initial displeasure I ended up liking some of what I saw. The first thing you notice when you’re watching Long is that he’s a big, squatty guy. He’s listed at 6’4”, 315 pounds but he looks like he’s 6’2” or 6’3” to me and doesn’t look like he has the longest arms. However, despite that, he moves pretty well for his size and is very regularly used for pulling from his right guard position. He’s comfortable pulling both ways, moves well in space and generally takes one guy out when he is asked to pull. He’s not a great drive blocker contrary to what I was expecting of him, but he does seal well and I was impressed enough with him as a puller to give him a mid-round grade at this point.

Jason Ankrah, DE, Senior- I’ll be honest and admit I’m not overly familiar with Ankrah’s game, but he is one of TWO seniors projected to start in Nebraska’s front 7 and his size and length intrigued me. He’s listed at 6’4”, 265 pounds and produced 26 tackles, 2 sacks and 4 TFL last season. He’s flashed some hand usage and while I don’t think he has a great burst off the ball I think he has some potential as a strong side end in a 4-3. I don’t think he’s going to be a dominant pass rusher, and that’s one of the reasons Nebraska has to be worried about their defense this year. If Ankrah is their top returning sack man (which he is, tied for the team lead with Ciante Evans, a cornerback) and he doesn’t generate much pass rush then Nebraska’s more experienced secondary is going to have a lot of pressure on them. Perhaps Ankrah will surprise me, but right now I don’t think he’s going to be able to replace the 8.5 sacks that Eric Martin produced last season.

Zaire Anderson, OLB, Junior- Anderson is a kid that I was completely unfamiliar with until the spring game and until I read up on him a bit following it. He generated a lot of buzz by dominating the “Compete Drill” which is a drill where a defender has to beat two blockers and tackle a ball carrier. From what I read the blockers won this drill almost every time, but Anderson absolutely shredded it. He tore his ACL before the second game of the season last year and received a medical redshirt, and now the short not small linebacker is ready to play a full year of football. Having only started one game for Nebraska last year there isn’t much film to go on, but watching what I could of him at junior college and reading up on his performance at the spring game I definitely am keeping an eye on this kid. He screams impact player to me and even though he is listed at 5’11”, 220 pounds he plays bigger than that (as you can see from that video). He’s not afraid of contact, he stacks and sheds shockingly well for his size, he’s a good tackler, and he’s a good athlete. I think he can get up in the 230-235 range by the time he leaves Nebraska and if I’m right I think he’s going to be a linebacker in the NFL.

Ciante Evans, CB, Senior- It’s hard to get a great feel for corners (at least for me) without All-22 footage, but Evans is a guy that I think could be draftable with another solid senior season. Evans was a first year starter last season as a junior and the 5’11”, 190 pound corner produced 56 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 TFL, 8 pass break-ups and 1 interception. From what I’ve been able to see of him it seems like he has pretty good ball skills and he is the Huskers’ nickel corner, so having experience covering in the slot will help him in the eyes of evaluators. He needs another good year to boost his draft stock into the draftable range in my opinion.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Senior- Andrew Green is supposedly the better prospect, but I am much more intrigued by Jean-Baptiste. He’s a converted wide receiver who had never played defensive back before his first season with Nebraska as a sophomore but he still made this fantastic interception despite only having been on the defensive side of the ball for 3 weeks. Given the NFL’s trend of wanting bigger, longer and more physical corners I think Jean-Baptiste is going to be far more popular than people expect come draft time. He’s listed at 6’2”, 215 pounds and has great length and ball skills thanks to his time spent as a wide receiver. He’s still raw and obviously doesn’t know the nuances of the position, but I think he has a lot of upside as an outside corner. He’s not going to run a 4.4 flat, but I think he is in the 4.5-4.55 range which is more than good enough to get a NFL look at corner given his fantastic size. He may not even be a starter for Nebraska, but I think he’s going to get some NFL looks. He had 9 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions as a junior, so hopefully he gets some playing time outside when Evans slides inside to nickel.

Jarvis Jones has been an impact player at Georgia, but I don't think he will be a dominant pass rusher in the NFL.

Jarvis Jones has been an impact player at Georgia, but I don’t think he will be a dominant pass rusher in the NFL.

Size/Measurables:

Jones doesn’t have ideal measurables for a 4-3 defensive end and is a little light for the 3-4 OLB position. He is listed at 6’3”, 241 pounds but it wouldn’t surprise me if he measured in at 6’2” and 235 pounds or so. He’s not a huge player and he doesn’t look like he has a ton of room on his frame to “bulk up” and get up to 255-260 pounds or so.

Instincts/Recognition:

Jones isn’t elite in this area, but I think he is good enough to play 3-4 OLB or 4-3 OLB at the next level. He seems to diagnose plays pretty well, flows to the ball well and does a good job of setting the edge in the run game. He understands his responsibilities and doesn’t abandon his responsibilities in the run game to roll the dice on rushing the passer. He has been used to spy scrambling quarterbacks during his time at Georgia, and seems to have a good feel for when he needs to keep contain. There are times when he takes too wide of an arc when he attempts an edge rush and the QB escapes through the lane he created, but typically he adjusts and doesn’t make the same mistake over and over again.

Pursuit/Range:

Jones excels in pursuit and has impressive range despite what I perceive as a lack of elite straight line speed for a 3-4 outside linebacker. He has a great motor and consistently gives good effort from the backside whether the play is near him or whether the ball is far away from him. He knows how to flow through trash and has a lot of experience taking on blocks because of playing at the line of scrimmage.

Tackling:

Jones isn’t a great tackler but he is a pretty good tackler. He attempts too many arm tackles for my liking, but seemingly every player I scout these days does. He shows that he can wrap up and he can generate pop on contact. He also has a great knack for forcing fumbles as evidenced by his 9 forced fumbles the past two years (including an incredible seven just this year) and that speaks to the power he can generate when he tackles a ball carrier.

Coverage:

This is one area that I’m not very comfortable with Jones on. He has been such a productive pass rusher the past two years that it’s almost criminal to drop him into coverage, but Georgia did mix that in at times and while I think he is raw in this department I think he can develop if asked to do more of it at the next level. I haven’t gotten to see him make straight drops in coverage, but I think he has the potential to fit at outside linebacker in a 4-3.

Point of Attack:

Jones isn’t elite at the point of attack by any means, but he’s not as much of a liability as I expected him to be. He doesn’t have ideal arm length for a pass rusher and it will hinder him if he’s asked to play 4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB in my opinion. He is stronger than I expected him to be and he has shown that he can anchor against bigger, stronger players at the point of attack, but at the same time I’ve seen him blocked effectively by tight ends like Michael Williams and Justice Cunningham. He has shown that he can use the length he has to keep blockers from getting into his chest and he has a pretty good feel for controlling the blocker before he sheds the block to wrap up the ball carrier. He has shown that he can set the edge and consistently shows that he has the strength to walk a defender into the backfield and help disrupt outside running plays even when he doesn’t come free and necessarily make the play. He’s not a dominant run defender by any means, but I don’t think he’s nearly as much of a liability as he is portrayed to be sometimes.

Blitzing/Pass Rush:

This is traditionally considered Jones’ greatest asset, but I’m not as convinced of his pass rushing prowess as some others seem to be. First, his get-off is not as explosive as you would think it was after hearing about how dominant he has been. He rarely fires off the ball using all of his athleticism, though I imagine some of that has to do with him being assignment steady. Still, it prevents him from gaining an instant advantage against blockers he theoretically should be able to beat off the edge if he is as explosive as we were led to believe. Second, I watched 14 games of him before writing this scouting report (it was a mix of games from his redshirt sophomore season and from his junior season this year) and I never once saw him explode off the ball, go with a straight speed rush, execute a shoulder dip and beat the tackle for a clean sack. That concerns me for a number of reasons: First, and most obviously, this signals to me that he can’t win with a simple speed rush in college which means there is no reason to believe he’s going to be able to win with a speed rush at the next level. Second, he seems to be a little stiff and it shows when he tries to bend the edge. Third, it means he has to use his quickness, power and non-stop motor to generate pressure (which he has obviously done quite successfully in college to the tune of 26 sacks the past two seasons). That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since quickness, and that kind of effort level generally translate pretty well to the NFL. However, at 240 pounds or less, I have questions about how well his power moves will translate to the NFL even though I’ve seen him convert speed to power pretty nicely when bull rushing. He is obviously a good pass rusher, and he has shown that he can slap away the hands of a blocker to gain an advantage when rushing. He has also flashed a spin move (though I’ve never seen him use it en route to getting a sack), but he could still stand to improve his hand usage and develop his swim move. He could also really use a good rip move since he likes to go inside so much. That is where Jones creates almost all of his pressure- beating tackles inside, stunting, and by chasing quarterbacks down after the pocket collapses even when he hasn’t necessarily beaten his man 1 on 1. By adding a powerful rip move he could improve his ability to win by going inside even more. The problem with that is at the next level he’s not going to be able to beat tackles inside nearly as easily if he can’t threaten their outside shoulder with a dynamic speed rush, and that is extremely concerning. Without at least the threat of beating them off the edge any smart tackle will avoid opening their hips up too early and be looking for him to attempt to dart inside or attempt a rip move on their inside shoulder. With those pass rush options taken away (remember, that’s how he generates a lot of his pressure) he won’t be nearly as effective and a lot of people that didn’t study him and realize that he just isn’t an explosive edge rusher will be completely dumbfounded. That’s why I don’t think he’s going to be a stud pass rusher in the NFL, and it’s why I’m not convinced his best position at the next level is outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.

Intangibles:

I have never spoken to Jones so it’s hard to evaluate his character, but from everything I have read he seems like a great kid. First, there is this CBS special focusing on how he overcame his 19 year old brother being murdered outside of a bar on his birthday. Second, there was this article in Sports Illustrated discussing his brother’s tragic death and being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal cord. USC was concerned that this could lead to a serious neck injury and wouldn’t clear him to play. He requested and was granted a release from his scholarship and that led him back home to Georgia in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense. It’s hard not to root for a kid like Jones who has been through so much on and off the field and come out a better person for it. I was particularly moved by the last part of the Sports Illustrated article where he discussed opening a rec center in Stewart County in honor of his older brother. He really seems to have his head on straight and that combined with his great motor and effort level on the field makes me think that he won’t be any kind of character risk even after he signs a multi-million dollar contract. The spinal stenosis is going to be heavily scrutinized though. I imagine a number of teams will take him off their board completely because of that medical red flag despite the impressive production he has had in college. That will hurt his draft stock, but it only takes one team and even if that red flag pushes him down draft boards I think that will just be another hurdle that Jones finds a way to overcome on the way to a successful NFL career. I’m no doctor so I can’t make any educated guess about how long of a career he will be able to have, but that will be something that every NFL team inquires about at the combine.

Overall:

I think Jones is a quality NFL prospect, but I don’t think he is going to be a dominant pass rusher at the next level and I have questions about how well he projects to the 3-4 OLB position in the NFL despite his obvious success in that role at Georgia the past two years. This probably won’t be typical of many evaluators, but I think he would be a great 4-3 OLB candidate at the next level, particularly at strong side linebacker (which is ironically where USC was playing him). He has a lot of experience blitzing off the edge, stunting inside and has even been used to spy scrambling quarterbacks so he won’t have issues rushing the passer or spying the passer at the next level. He may not be a dominant run defender for a defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, but for a 4-3 outside linebacker he has more than enough size, strength and block shedding experience to fill versus the run, set the edge on the outside and make impact plays in the backfield. I am not that comfortable with him in coverage yet, but he has shown flashes of being able to turn and run with receivers and has some experience dropping into short zones. There’s just not a ton of tape available showcasing his ability to drop into coverage, but I believe that he has the athletic ability and the intelligence to do it well if he is coached up. I think the 4-3 OLB position plays to his strengths best- he won’t be hindered by his struggles to win off the edge with a pure speed rush because he will be blitzing instead of being relied upon to generate pressure as a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker every snap, his perceived struggles versus the run as a DE/OLB may even be turned into a strength since he has so much experience attacking blocks and shedding them at the line of scrimmage, and he has enough athletic ability to at least give dropping into coverage more a try. Even if he doesn’t excel in coverage the strongside linebacker is often taken off the field in nickel and dime packages where he could put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer if the defensive coordinator wanted to keep him on the field. He’s a good linebacker and a quality kid, so even though I don’t think he’s going to be a dynamic pass rusher I still like him as a prospect. He just has such a knack for making plays through his effort (look at all those forced fumbles, plenty of them are because his motor never stopped running and he caught a player from behind and punched the ball out) and I think NFL teams are going to be impressed with him when they interview him if they can look past his potential medical concerns.

Projection: Top 40-50.

This might seem outlandish, but I don’t think he’s even close to a lock for the top 15 right now and after people start overreacting to his medical condition there will be plenty of people exclaiming that he will fall to the 3rd round or maybe even further if enough NFL teams take him off their draft board. I won’t try to downplay how serious his condition can be because based on what I understand he could be at risk for a serious injury, but I think that a team in the late 1st round will see a kid with a great motor, work ethic and a history of impressive production and either slide down to select him or move up and get him in the 2nd round. I personally think he could be a very good 4-3 strong side linebacker, but I’m sure plenty of NFL teams will assume he will be a quality 3-4 OLB as well. I’m not quite so sure, but it’s hard to ignore all he has produced at the college level.

Corey Robinson, QB, Troy:*

Overall: Robinson impressed me, though he only attempted 11 passes, and for the most part he had a clean pocket as a result of good protection and made easy throws. He was accurate and threw a beautiful deep ball vs 1 on 1 coverage, but I didn’t see him come off his primary read regularly. Obviously I need to see more of him, and he’s just a junior, but I think he has a NFL future. He’s impressed me since he was a freshman at Troy, and has been overlooked because of his height his entire football career. He can play, and I hope he’s alright as it looked like he may have sustained a concussion.

Quanterus Smith, DE, WKU:

Overall: I came in excited to watch Smith against Troy but despite flashing a bit of hand usage to keep his blocker off balance he didn’t do anything as a pass rusher despite entering the game with 6.5 sacks on the season (including one against DJ Fluker). He has some edge speed, flashes of hand usage, and seems to have a solid motor, but that didn’t translate into production against Troy. Had Robinson not been knocked out just before halftime I have plenty of confidence that Troy would have beaten WKU, and Smith’s inability to beat Troy’s RT like he stole something played a big role in that.

Jack Doyle, TE, WKU:

Overall: Doyle impressed me. He’s not a 1st round prospect by any means, but as a mid-late round prospect I think he has some value. This was the first time I’d watched him, so it’s impossible for me to put a round grade on him given that, but he has the size at 6’6”, 252 pounds, looks pretty athletic, gave good effort as a blocker and caught all the passes I saw thrown to him (even though they were mostly underneath). He needs technique work as a blocker, but he showed that he can be a wall-off type even if he didn’t get much push or sustain consistently against defensive ends in the run game. He’s a solid prospect, so keep an eye on him.

Mitchell Henry, TE, WKU:**

Overall: If Doyle was solid and consistent, Henry was eye-catching and intriguing. At first I thought he was a wide receiver, but he’s a 6’4”, 245 pound tight end who is an interesting joker tight end prospect. He is an athletic kid with some burst to him, he releases off the line of scrimmage well, looks smooth when running his routes, seems to have good hands and showed that he can make tough catches in traffic a few times last night. I’m definitely a fan, and since he is only a sophomore he should have two years as the starter barring unforeseen circumstances after Doyle graduates.

Antonio Andrews, RB, WKU:*

Overall: Andrews finished with 26 carries for 113 yards (4.6 ypc) and 1 reception for 14 yards, but he easily could have had a couple touchdowns receiving as he beat linebackers with his route running in man coverage at least two or three times and was horribly overthrown by his quarterback Jakes (who is not nearly draftable despite being born one day after me on February 28th, 1990). He impressed me as a route runner and as a runner despite fumbling the ball twice. He is a bigger back at 6’0”, 211 pounds but has legitimate athleticism and shiftiness to him which I liked. Both of his fumbles, from what I could see, were forced by defenders getting their helmets on the ball and dislodging it. There’s not a ton you can do about that, but the little that he could have done (cover the ball with two hands when contact was imminent) didn’t happen, and that is on him. What bothered me more was even later in the game, despite fumbling twice in the first half, still was running towards and through contact with one arm on the ball and on one play I thought he was definitely going to get stripped from behind. I like Andrews, but he needs to work on ball security. He’s only a junior and I would be surprised if he declared after this season, but it’s his first year as a starter and he has had a great start to the season after stepping up to replace Bobby Rainey after he left for the NFL. I like him, but he has room to improve.

Andrew Jackson, MLB, WKU:*

Overall: Jackson was a very pleasant surprise for me because I love instinctual middle linebackers that can deliver a big hit. It’s one reason I really liked Curtis Lofton, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes coming out, and it’s why I like Jackson. He’s listed at 6’1”, 265 pounds but he looked like he could stand to lose 10-15 pounds and perhaps help himself move even better than he does. He looked like a pretty good athlete despite potentially carrying extra weight, and he is a tackling machine. He had 17 TFL last season during his first year as a starter while he also had 100+ tackles (40-45 solos if I remember correctly) and already has at least 7.5 TFL thus far as a junior. I think he may need to improve his conditioning, because I think he was taken out for a few plays on one of Troy’s longer drives, but that comes back to the weight issue. If he drops that and improves his conditioning LOOK OUT. He’s a nice middle linebacker and I definitely enjoyed watching him against Troy.

Xavius Boyd, OLB, WKU:*

Overall: Boyd is another talented junior linebacker on WKU. I didn’t see him as much as Jackson, but he filled downhill well and made a couple nice plays on the goal line to help force Troy to attempt a fake field goal despite having the ball inside the 10, getting a pass interference penalty, and then still getting stopped three more times. It was an impressive stand, and Boyd definitely contributed to it.

From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing Florida State, and my god are they talented. This preview took me hours longer than I expected it to only because of the sheer vastness of talent that Jimbo Fisher and Florida State have assembled. It’s almost unbelievable, and there’s no way to cover it all in one post. I, however, took my best shot at it here. On offense the ‘Noles return 8 starters including quarterback EJ Manuel who was good but not great in his first full season as a starter last year. That obviously had a lot to do with the massive number of injuries that FSU’s offense sustained last year, especially along the offensive line, but Manuel has plenty of room to improve before I will grade him as even a 2nd round pick. Luckily, the FSU running game should be much improved this season thanks in part to true sophomore Devonta Freeman, and Manuel has plenty of receiving threats to throw the ball to. Rashad Greene is my favorite, but Rodney Smith, Christian Green and Nick O’Leary should all be reliable, consistent targets this season. The question for me is the offensive line, where they have some talent and depth but not an abundance of starting experience. They aren’t a reliable unit and they lost their top two tackles from a year ago, Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders. Stepping up to replace them is going to be critical, especially since Manuel has a tendency to hang onto the ball longer than he should.

The defense, however, should carry this team to at least 10 wins this season. With a unit this talented anything else would be a disappointment. It’s not completely inconceivable that Florida State could have 3 top 40 picks just at defensive end, and they also have the top recruit in the country Mario Edwards entering the fold at the defensive end spot. They have everything from a potential 1st round pick in Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle, to a top 100 prospect nose tackle in Anthony “Amp” McCloud, to an underrated 3 tech in Everett Dawkins. They also have a pair of reliable middle linebackers and a stud outside linebacker in Christian Jones. Top that off with a pair of probable 1st round picks in Xavier Rhodes and Lamarcus Joyner in the secondary and you have to wonder how anyone plans on getting into field goal range against this defense, much less scoring touchdowns. This defense is going to be incredible, and if the offensive line steps up and EJ Manuel starts to live up to his potential this team could be downright scary. I’m not confident in the offensive line or in EJ, however, and that means I still think Virginia Tech is going to come through as the ACC Champion. With that, here is my prospect preview of Florida State’s insanely talented roster:

P.S. I have to give a huge shout-out to TomahawkNation.com because they were a fantastic resource for this piece and they do an absolutely unbelievable job covering Florida State and football in general over there. Give them a read whether you like Florida State or not.

EJ Manuel, QB- Manuel is returning for his second full season as a starter with 17 career starts over his Seminole career. He’s listed at 6’5”, 238 pounds and definitely passes the eye test, and his strong arm is noticeable right away. Not only that, but he is very athletic for his size which helped him rush for 141 yards and 4 touchdowns last year in addition to passing for 2,666 yards (65.3% completion), 18 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. One would assume he would improve on those numbers this year, particularly with some intriguing talent returning at receiver and running back, but I will be looking to see how his accuracy develops in addition to his pocket poise and ability to read defenses. He’s definitely got potential, but at this point he’s a lot closer to a 3rd round prospect than a 1st rounder in my opinion. I don’t think he processes information quickly enough to be a top college quarterback and eventual quality NFL starter, and unless his head catches up with his arm and his body he’s going to be a physically gifted quarterback who never put it together from the mental aspect of the game. Until he proves that his football IQ has improved and that he can read defenses well I’m not going to grade him in the top 64 picks.

Devonta Freeman, RB**- Freeman is only a true sophomore but he led the Seminoles in rushing last season, overtaking the oft-injured Jermaine Thomas. He rushed just 120 times but gained 579 yards (4.8 ypc) and 8 touchdowns as a freshman. I think he’s poised for a huge break-out season this year, as he is healthy and ready to rumble. He is listed at 5’8”, 200 pounds and honestly his running style and tools reminds me of Trent Richardson. I know that’s extremely high praise, but I can’t help but think of Richardson when I watch him run. He is not afraid to lower his pads and initiate contact with defenders, he churns his legs very well to get tough yards, he falls forward consistently, he has plenty of speed to rip off big chunks of yardage, he is shifty and can make defenders miss, and he has flashed the ability to catch passes well out of the backfield despite only having 15 receptions for 94 yards last season. I’m a big Freeman fan, and I hope he gets way more than 120 carries this season because this kid is special.

Rashad Greene, WR**- I may be a huge fan of Devonta Freeman but I am just as big a fan of Rashad Greene. He was mind-blowingly good as a true freshman last year as he led FSU in receptions (38), receiving yards (596) and touchdowns (7) all while having a 15.7 yards per reception average. He has fantastic hands, adjusts so well to the ball and just has a knack for making critical catches when his team needs him to. He can still improve as a route runner, but he is already pretty respectable in that department for such a young player. His body control and concentration is exceptional, and I think the 6’0”, 175 pound receiver is already one of the best in the ACC. He showed that consistently last year, and he has all the speed, burst and ball skills you could ever want in a wide receiver. Much like Freeman, this kid is SPECIAL.

Rodney Smith, WR- Smith is returning for his senior year with 20 career starts, including 12 last year during which he totaled 36 receptions, 561 yards and 4 touchdowns. At 6’6”, 219 pounds Smith is a huge target and has tons of potential as a red-zone threat. He came to FSU as a very raw player that needed to grow into his frame, and now that he is listed at 219 pounds he seems to have done so. He doesn’t have explosive speed but he is a long strider with build-up speed that can sneak behind defenses if they don’t keep an eye on him. Because of his height he has plenty of potential to come down with jump balls, and has good hands so he is able to win some of those match-ups. He’s not a top 100 pick at this point, but he has worked hard to fill out his frame, improve his route running and learn to shield defenders from the ball with his 6’6” frame. 6’6” receivers with good hands are exceedingly rare, and it seems that Smith fits that bill. If he can continue to show improvement, particularly in his route running, he will catch plenty of eyes as a senior. This senior receiver class is significantly worse than the 2012 draft class, so if Smith has a great season he could really vault himself up draft boards.

Christian Green, WR**- Green is another explosive receiver that Manuel will have to find a way to get the ball to on a regular basis. Green is listed at 6’2”, 206 and has fantastic raw athleticism and tons of speed, and as a redshirt freshman last season he had 26 receptions, 450 yards but no touchdowns. His speed presents a lot of potential headaches for defenses, but his route running needs considerable work so he is able to be bottled up by quality cornerbacks. If his route running improves he could be a huge difference maker in 2012 though, particularly if Manuel starts to read defenses better and quicker.

Nick O’Leary, TE**- O’Leary is just a true sophomore but he flashed some serious potential as a freshman last season en route to a 12 catch, 164 yard, 1 touchdown season as a true freshman. He may not have had eye-popping numbers, but the 6’4”, 240 pound tight end is ready to break out this year. He has good hands, runs good routes and is probably the best tight end FSU has had on its roster in years. I’m not sure how good of a blocker he is, but as a receiver he is likely to be targeted much more frequently than he was last season and should start to garner a lot of national attention soon. He’s a very good tight end prospect, so keep an eye on him.

Bjoern Werner, DE*- Werner is one of the top defensive ends in the country and could be a part of one of the best pass rushing draft classes in recent memory. Werner is listed at 6’4”, 272 pounds and in 13 starts last season he had 37 tackles, 4 TFL, 7 sacks, 8 pass break-ups, 1 interception, 1 fumble forced and 1 fumble that he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. Werner is the top prospect on FSU’s loaded roster which says a lot about him. He is only a true junior and yet he has played in every game over his first two years with the Seminoles. He has tons of potential thanks to his fantastic strength, work ethic and motor. He made huge strides as a sophomore despite it being his fourth year of football and he may be saving his best for last as a junior. He is still raw and is just scratching the surface of his potential, and I think he has the makings of a top 10 pick come April. Defensive ends with Werner’s skill set are exceedingly rare, and combining that with a fierce work ethic and motor often ends in good or great NFL careers. That is what I anticipate from Werner, and I dare you to ignore him when you watch Florida State’s defense this year. It’s nearly impossible.

Brandon Jenkins, DE- Jenkins is certainly the more well-known pass rusher on Florida State’s defense, but Werner is the superior prospect thanks to his size and strength. Jenkins has worked hard to add muscle to his frame, as he is currently listed at 6’3”, 260 pounds and was only about 240 when he broke out as a true sophomore. His stats may have slipped last season as he “only” had 41 tackles, 4 TFL, 8 sacks and 1 pass break-up, but that was largely due to an increase in attention from opposing offenses in the way of double teams and screens to his side of the field. The attention offenses gave to Jenkins certainly played a role in Werner’s break-out, but both are potential 1st round picks in their own right. Having that much talent at defensive end plus Tank Carradine, who would start on 95% of college football’s defensive lines but comes off the bench at Florida State, makes Florida State’s defensive line incredibly fierce even without considering the talent they have at defensive tackle. It will be interesting to see if Jenkins is actually playing at 260, my guess it he is in the 250-255 range. He might be able to get away with that at right end in the NFL, especially if he holds up against the run better as he showed the ability to do last year, but the best use of all of his athleticism might be at 3-4 outside linebacker. Regardless, he has all the burst, explosion and athletic ability you could ever want in a pass rusher, and with an 8-10 sack season this year he will likely go in the top 32 selections in April.

Tank Carradine, DE- Carradine is the odd man out on Florida State’s depth chart but he undoubtedly has a NFL future. Carradine is listed at 6’5”, 264 pounds and is extremely strong and projects very well to the strong side end in a 4-3 defense in my opinion. Last year was his first with the Seminoles and many didn’t expect him to contribute a lot but he shocked them all. He finished with 38 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 5.5 sacks after committing to FSU out of junior college. Carradine doesn’t have the elite burst off the snap and doesn’t have Jenkins’ edge speed but he closes like a missile and his strength is on the same level as Werner’s. He was extremely impressive for a player new to the program last year and should be even better this year. I don’t think FSU will have 3 first round picks at defensive end, but if Carradine surprises people again and has a great season despite the team trying to divide limited snaps between three stud defensive ends then it wouldn’t be completely outlandish even in a draft class with so much pass rushing talent. I really like what Carradine brings to the table and I can’t wait to see how he does this year even if he isn’t starting for FSU.

Timmy Jernigan, DT**- Jernigan has the most upside of any of the defensive tackles in my opinion, and he showed a lot of it as a true freshman. The 6’3”, 301 pound defensive tackle accounted for 30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, and 1 fumble recovery. That’s an amazing year for a freshman defensive tackle, and it’s really raised expectations for him as a sophomore. This is a talented defensive line though, one of the two best in the country along with LSU in my opinion, and that means there won’t be an abundance of tackles for loss and sacks just floating around. Jernigan will still earn his keep though thanks to his fantastic blend of quickness, athleticism and strength. It was noted that one of his weaknesses is that he can be put on skates by a pair of quality offensive linemen double teaming him, but if that’s one of the only issues you can find with the game of a true freshman defensive tackle then you have stumbled on to a future top 10 pick in the making in my opinion. He’s got incredible upside and as long as he continues to work and progress he should end up as a top 15 pick one day.

Anthony McCloud, DT- McCloud is essentially the antithesis of Jernigan. He’s listed at 6’2”, 312 pounds and while he doesn’t have Jernigan’s freakish athleticism he does a fantastic job plugging up the middle of the field from the nose tackle position. He is squatty, strong and incredibly hard to move off the ball even with a double team. He may not offer the pass rush or backfield disruption of a player like Jernigan, but considering how trendy the 3-4 defense has become in the NFL space-eaters like Jernigan that simply occupy blockers and clog the A gaps in the middle of the defense are still incredibly valuable. He’s assignment reliable, he doesn’t get moved off the ball and he’s a team player. That sounds like he a top 100 lock in the NFL draft to me, especially if he continues to impress versus the run as a senior.

Everett Dawkins, DT- Dawkins flies under the radar on Florida State because he is literally surrounded with NFL talent in every direction. Jenkins, Werner, Carradine and Jernigan were all in the limelight last season, and Dawkins just went about his business on his way to a ho-hum 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 sack, 3 pass break-up, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble season. For most starting defensive tackles this would be a “meh” season, and statistically perhaps it is. But when your top three defensive ends combine for 20.5 sacks there just aren’t a ton of sacks to go around for your defensive tackles (FSU had “just” 6.5 between Dawkins, McCloud and Jernigan). Dawkins is listed at 6’2”, 301 pounds and is reliable against the run and the pass. He’s tough to move in the run game, he has great burst and acceleration and I think his statistics mask how much NFL ability he has. He’s playing on an incredibly talented defensive line which will make some teams wonder how good he really is, but he’s a top 100 pick without a doubt in my mind and should prove as much during the season and hopefully at the Senior Bowl.

Vince Williams, MLB- Williams is the starting MLB heading into the season despite some significant opposition from Telvin Smith, a 6’3”, 210 pound junior. Williams had a good season last year as he totaled 54 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, and 1 interception. Williams is a good run defender but there are questions about how good he is versus the pass. I don’t know that much about him to be honest, but he played a key role in the FSU run defense being as good as it was (opponents averaged just 2.3 yards per carry against the ‘Noles, and only Wake Forest and Miami averaged over 3 yards per carry against them last season). He’s a reliable tackler and he may not be a freak athlete, but he knows his responsibilities and he sticks to them. He’s probably not going to be a high draft pick, but there are certainly worse middle linebackers starting around the ACC and the country.

Telvin Smith, MLB*- Smith attempted to challenge and overtake Williams, but he wasn’t able to do so from what I understand. He’s listed at 6’3”, 210 pounds and from what I understand he is the better coverage linebacker and makes more flashy plays than Williams does. That was partially evidenced by his stat-line as he totaled 42 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 pass break-ups, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble as a sophomore. He probably has more upside than Williams, but for now Williams is the starter even if Smith is still rotated in. He will almost certainly be the starter as a senior in 2013.

Christian Jones, OLB*- Jones is a stud outside linebacker, there’s no other way to say it. He may not be quite where you want to be as far as the mental aspect of the game is concerned, but he has all the size and athletic ability you could ever want in an outside linebacker. He’s listed at 6’4”, 237 pounds and has the speed and change of direction to cover any tight end and even slot receivers at times. He’s a ferocious hitter and while his stats may not jump off the page (56 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 pass break-ups) he absolutely has 1st round upside and the 2012 season may be the year he really starts to reach it. He’s a freak athlete and could even consider bulking up and playing 3-4 outside linebacker if he wanted to. He’s that caliber of athlete.

Xavier Rhodes, CB*- Rhodes really caught my eye as a redshirt freshman and he did it again last year when I was watching FSU against Notre Dame and he was doing a good job 1 on 1 against Michael Floyd who went #13 overall in the NFL Draft this past year to the Arizona Cardinals. Rhodes has fantastic size for a corner and is listed at 6’2”, 209 pounds, has the speed to turn and run with most any receiver, and has very long arms which help him at the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage when he tries to make plays on the ball. He’s got a ton of ability, impressive instincts and great ball skills and even though he didn’t have a great season last year (according to Tomahawk Nation there were rumors of attitude and work ethic problems with Rhodes after his terrific freshman year, which is a bit of a red flag) he still had 43 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 4 pass break-ups and 1 interception. That was a bit of a disappointment after he had 4 interceptions as a freshman, but now that he is back for his junior season and his third year as a starter (he returns with 25 career starts) he has a chance to get back to freshman form and show evaluators the potential top 15 pick we all saw two years ago.

Lamarcus Joyner, SS*- I am a BIG Joyner fan. He may be undersized for the safety position at 5’8”, 193 pounds but he is a fantastic player. He has fantastic instincts which is probably my favorite part of his game, but the fact that he has incredible range, legitimate 4.4 speed, long arms, great ball skills and closes like a heat-seeking missile sure doesn’t hurt either. Did I mention he packs a whallop as a hitter, averaged 30.5 yards per kick return and is one of the emotional leaders of the defense? Oh, and had 54 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 3 pass break-ups and 4 interceptions as a sophomore? He is my #1 draft eligible safety and it’s not even close. He is a 1st round lock if he continues to play anything like he did last season even in spite of his height. If he holds up from a durability stand-point the only knock close-minded analysts will be able to find on him is his lack of height. Joyner is the caliber of player that USC fans and the national media tried to hype Taylor Mays up to be except that Joyner is vastly better despite being about 5-6 inches shorter. Give me Joyner in my secondary literally any day of the week, he is the rare safety that makes the entire rest of the defense better because of his range and playmaking ability, and that’s why I would pick him in the top 20 (maybe even higher, though I want to see him as a second year starter before I go that far) without a second thought.

Dustin Hopkins, K- Hopkins rounds out this absolutely insane list of NFL Draft prospects and hopefuls. He is a good kicker who hasn’t been automatic or completely clutch, but he has reliable. He was 1st team all ACC last year as he made all 44 of his extra point attempts and made 22 of his 27 field goals with a long of 53 (though he was 1/3 from 50+). He drives the ball very well on kick-offs and certainly contributes to Florida State having as good of a kick-off coverage team as they do. I’m not sure if he will be drafted, but he could very well end up in the 5th-7th round conversation.

From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing the Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavaliers made it to a bowl game last season but lost to Auburn 43-24. This year the Cavaliers are hoping to build on their 8-5 season in 2011, and Head Coach Mike London seems to be doing a good job. He took his 4-8 team in 2010 and helped mold it into an 8 win team just a year later, and now in 2012 they have a shot at a similar win total. They return their starting quarterback from a year ago in Michael Rocco and he has fresh competition at quarterback now that Alabama transfer Phillip Sims has been added to the fold. Rocco has the hold on the starting job for now, but Sims is a superior talent because of his athleticism and arm strength. Rocco won the job because of his command of the offense, but as Sims catches up to him in that regard it will be hard for London to keep a player with Sims’ talent off the field in my opinion. The competition in the 2013 spring should be a very good one, but for now Rocco will be the quarterback. The Cavaliers return two talented running backs in Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, and their offensive line returns three starters that I believe have NFL futures. The Cavaliers don’t have much experience at wide receiver, but returning receiving leader Tim Smith is poised for a break-out season, as is Darius Jennings, a true sophomore wide receiver with plenty of speed. The Cavaliers should have a pretty reliable offense this year, particularly if Rocco continues to improve and some of his relative unknown receiving options step up.

Strangely, the question marks surround the defense more than the offense. The defensive line has some talent headlined by captain Will Hill and defensive end Bill Schautz, and captains Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds anchor the linebackers. I wonder how much of a pass rush this defensive line will generate, and that makes me even more concerned about the Cavaliers’ secondary. They are starting a lot of inexperienced players, and return only one starter to that unit. They have potential, but their lack of in-game experience is likely going to rear its ugly head in the form of big plays this season, and that is going to hurt the Cavaliers in their quest to win an ACC Championship. I think UVA will go to a bowl game again, but I don’t think they will be able to unseat Virginia Tech for a trip to the ACC title game. With that, take a look at Virginia’s prospects to keep an eye on:

Michael Rocco, QB*- Rocco is a 6’3”, 225 pound junior who enters this season with 13 career starts that all came as a sophomore. He looked like the obvious choice to be the starting QB, but then Phillip Sims transferred to Virginia from Alabama after losing the starting job to AJ McCarron again. Rocco isn’t a great athlete but he was solid as a starter last year, passing for 2,671 yards (60.7% completion), 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He doesn’t have as strong of an arm as Sims does, though he probably has above average arm strength if I had to approximate, but it’s not ideal. I want to see him improve as a decision maker this year, which could very well happen given how often he is praised for his football IQ and intangibles. He’s tough and he’s an effective leader even if he isn’t a big “rah-rah” guy, and that could be what helps him keep his job more than anything else. It will be interesting to see how he does this season, because keeping a hold on his starting job will require improving on the field and some mental toughness off of it. Sims isn’t going to go away, and he will be nipping at his heels all season in all likelihood. Rocco should be named the starter even if he isn’t as physically gifted because he knows the offense so well and Sims is still playing catch-up in that regard.

Phillip Sims, QB**- Sims is the talented but often overlooked quarterback that is likely to back Rocco up this season. Sims was AJ McCarron’s back-up at Alabama and could never overtake him to win the job, and transferred to Virginia hoping to unseat Rocco and start here. That seems unlikely even though he gained a medical hardship waiver enabling him to play right away. That meant he was in a stiff competition for playing time with the entrenched starting quarterback without having a firm grasp of the offense. Sims doesn’t have the playbook mastered yet, and even though it is similar to the offense he ran at Alabama it will take him time to master the terminology that Rocco is already fluent in. Sims likely won’t unseat Rocco for the starting job now, but down the line once they are both more comfortable Sims could have a chance to do so. Sims is listed at 6’2”, 217 pounds and I believe he is only a redshirt sophomore. That means that even if Rocco holds him off until he graduates Sims should have a season to start as a senior unless Rocco leaves early or he manages to overtake him before he graduates. It should be an intriguing developing story because Sims has a lot of natural talent, he’s just not as advanced as Rocco is in the mental aspect of the game, particularly as it pertains to UVA’s offense.

Perry Jones, RB- Jones is returning for his senior year with the Cavaliers having started 24 games in his career. He’s listed at 5’8”, 185 pounds but is pretty filled out considering his small frame. He is everywhere on Virginia’s offense, rushing 184 times for 915 yards and 5 touchdowns (5.0 ypc) and catching 38 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns as a junior. Jones may be a smaller back but he runs hard and with authority, doesn’t back down from contact, and has plenty of shiftiness and quickness as a runner. He doesn’t have gamebreaking straight line speed, and he may not have the frame to take a consistent pounding as a feature back at the next level, but his ability to run the ball effectively as well as catch the ball out of the backfield should result in him being drafted in the 5th-6th round range if not higher next April.

Kevin Parks, RB**- Parks may only be a sophomore but he’s got plenty of upside and will likely be the feature back after Jones graduates. He’s a shorter back like Jones as he is listed at 5’8”, but he weighs just shy of 200 pounds, and is listed at 195. That’s a lot of muscle to pack onto that short frame, and he almost reminds me of Doug Martin in that respect (aka, the Muscle Hampster). Predictably Parks runs hard, can’t be taken down by arm tackles, has some burst to hit the hole and has good leg drive. He isn’t on Jones’ level as a receiver out of the backfield, catching just 11 passes for 82 yards and 1 touchdown as a freshman, but I would be surprised if he didn’t improve in that regard. He’s got a lot of ability and despite playing second fiddle to Jones last year he rushed for 709 yards and 9 touchdowns (4.7 ypc). He may not be the starter yet, but he’s going to get plenty of touches this year and will almost certainly be the go-to guy at running back in 2013.

Tim Smith, WR*- Smith is the top returning receiver coming back for the Cavaliers and is primed and ready for a break-out season if he can stay healthy. He lost the 2010 season to injury when he had to have reconstructive ankle surgery, and despite not being 100% last season from being “nicked up” he was far and away the best deep threat the Cavaliers had on their roster. He caught 33 balls for 565 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 17.1 yards per reception. He’s listed at 6’0”, 185 pounds and has plenty of speed to threaten teams vertically and has a 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash. His sophomore season was just the beginning of his production and he is ready to make even more big plays this season. He has assumed a significant leadership role with the wide receivers because he is the most experienced of the entire lot, and has been pushing and motivating them all to get better. He is committed to improving and his goal is to get 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns this season even though only two Virginia receivers have eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving since 1990. He was actually high school teammates with Phillip Sims which provides an interesting dynamic for the quarterback competition that I imagine will be ongoing. Smith works hard, watches a lot of film and has become a leader all of which I love to hear. Now he just has to stay healthy and he should break out this season.

Darius Jennings, WR**- Jennings is a 5’11”, 165 pound receiver who is entering his true sophomore season but he has explosive speed much like Smith does. He had 20 receptions for 238 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore, but his biggest game came against Miami when he caught two screen passes but turned them into 78 combined yards and his only touchdown of the season. He’s dangerous in the open field and was utilized as the team’s primary kick returner last year, totaling a 20 yard average on his 30 runbacks. He seems poised to step up as well, and has reportedly been learning a lot from the leader of the receivers Tim Smith. He isn’t very big like Smith and he has plenty of speed and burst, so look out for them to turn a lot of short receptions into big gains thanks to their ability to generate yards after the catch.

Colter Phillips, TE- Phillips has 26 career starts but despite that he has never been much of a receiving threat, and he only had 3 receptions for 15 yards as a junior. He looked like he was ready to step up as a sophomore though, as he caught 18 receptions for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns. It remains to be seen how much of a role he will play in the passing attack this season, but hopefully he will be more involved. He is listed at 6’6”, 245 pounds and has the athletic ability and hands to be a productive tight end, he just needs to stay on the field.

Oday Aboushi, OT- Aboushi is the top draft prospect on Virginia’s roster right now and he has a legitimate shot at being a 1st round pick if he continues to improve as a senior. He enters his senior season with 25 career starts (20 coming at left tackle) and has prototypical left tackle size at 6’6”, 310 pounds and has the athleticism to stick at the position in the NFL. He is a hard worker and continues to improve, but he isn’t a very good run blocker at this point. That won’t deter teams from drafting him if he shows he can be a quality starting left tackle at the next level, but if teams are wishy washy about him sticking there or moving back to right tackle then his less impressive run blocking will drag his overall grade down. It will be interesting to see how he does as a senior because he is one of the top senior offensive tackles in the country.

Morgan Moses, OT*- Moses is a mountain of a man who enters his junior season with 20 career starts including 19 at Right Tackle (the other at right guard). He seems like a prototypical right tackle in the NFL to me, and is listed at 6’6”, 335 pounds and after reportedly weighing 350 pounds last season. He has surprisingly good feet and I think he can stay on the outside at the next level based on what I’ve seen so far. I’m not quite convinced he can be a left tackle in the NFL though. However, after Aboushi graduates if Moses doesn’t declare early he will likely slide over to left tackle as a senior like he did while Aboushi missed spring practice this season. Moses is very talented and has a lot of potential and is a potential 1st round pick in his own right, and forms one of the best offensive tackle combos in the entire country.

Luke Bowanko, OG*- Bowanko is returning for his second full season as a starter after starting all 13 games at right guard as a sophomore. He’s listed at 6’6”, 295 pounds and figures to get even bigger as he continues to fill out his frame. Bowanko has impressive speed and movement skills for an offensive lineman and reportedly ran a 4.8 40 yard dash when he was a junior in high school. Not only is he skilled on the football field but he works hard in the classroom and chose Virginia largely because of academics. He seems like a great kid and he’s an easy guy to root for, and I’m excited to see how he plays this year. This offensive line returns three starters and all three have NFL futures. Bowanko might be under the radar right now, but he won’t stay that way for long.

Bill Schautz, DE- Schautz is a high effort defensive end who has some injury question marks. He broke his leg in two places last season against Florida State and spent the entire offseason rehabbing to try to come back for the season. He is supposedly 100% now, and that is a tribute to his impressive work ethic and determination. He’s a senior now and if he can stay healthy for the entire season he could easily surpass his last season totals of 28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks and 2 pass break-ups. He’s got a great motor and always plays with great intensity, and has reportedly taken the top recruit in the state of Virginia, Eli Harold, under his wing. The two are roommates and if Harold, who has been timed at 4.46 in the 40 yard dash, begins to emulate Schautz’ work ethic and motor the sky will be the limit for him. There’s no word on whether Harold will play this season or not, but even if he doesn’t the lessons he will learn from Schautz will be valuable. He’s a key cog on the Cavaliers defense and while he might not be more than a late rounder or undrafted free agent at this point his leadership and work ethic will prove valuable if he does get a shot at the NFL.

Will Hill, DT- Hill is returning for his senior year with the Cavaliers and the defensive tackle has been named a team captain for the 2012 season. He is listed at 6’4”, 280 pounds and despite only having 1 career start he returns as a starting defensive tackle and a leader at that. Last season he had 36 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 2 pass break-ups and 1 forced fumble. I think he is ready to surpass all of those totals as a senior. He’s a bit undersized and could stand to add some more weight to fill out his frame, but he’s flying way under the radar since he has so little starting and playing experience beyond last season. He’s flashed some hand usage thus far in his career, but if he can continue to improve his hand usage and get more violent to shed blocks quicker and more decisively he would make more impact plays. He’s got a good motor and work ethic, so I think he’s capable of those improvements. If he can step up it would really help Virginia’s defense as a whole, both in run defense and in pass defense.

Steve Greer, MLB- Greer might be the top prospect on Virginia’s defense. He is listed at 6’2”, 225 pounds and he led the team in tackles last season with 103 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks and 4 pass break-ups. He has 24 career starts as he started as a freshman and as a junior, but lost his starting job as a sophomore despite playing in every game. He’s going to be the starter in the middle again this year, and figures to be one of the leaders of the defense along with Will Hill and Bill Schautz and was named a team captain for the 2012 season. He’s a tough player that doesn’t have great range though, and even though he’s a good tackler he is relatively unproven in coverage. He has some work to do to get drafted, but he’s got the attitude and work ethic to make a NFL roster even if he doesn’t get drafted.

LaRoy Reynolds, OLB- Reynolds was the second leading tackler on the Cavaliers last season with 88 tackles, 8 TFL and 1 pass break-up as a junior. He’s listed at 6’2”, 230 pounds and has been named a captain for the 2012 season. He’s not quite as fundamentally sound as Greer is as a tackler, but he has more explosiveness as a hitter and is no stranger to aggressive take-downs. He’s a little more physically imposing despite their similar measurables, but he tackles high more than I would like which can lead to missed tackles if it isn’t corrected. He contributes on special teams as well which should help him make a NFL roster even if he doesn’t get drafted.

Demetrious Nicholson, CB**- Nicholson started 13 games last year as a true freshman and is the only returning starter in the secondary for the Cavaliers which is going to be a serious concern for their defense this season. The pressure is squarely on the front 7 to make things as easy as possible for the secondary as they start not one, not two, not three but FOUR sophomores including three true sophomores in their defensive backfield. Nicholson is easily the most proven commodity having started last season as a true freshman as he earned 2nd team freshman All-American honors as he totaled 60 tackles, 2 TFL, 8 pass deflections and 2 interceptions. He is the only defender returning with an interception in 2011 and is going to be under intense pressure. Even if he steps up and plays well teams will just avoid him and challenge the other unproven members of the Cavalier secondary. Nicholson is listed at 5’11” but only weighs 165 pounds, so durability may be a concern for him until he can fill out his frame, but he has plenty of talent.

From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing the Duke Blue Devils. We all know the Duke Football program has had it’s struggles, and David Cutcliffe and his staff are still searching for a bowl appearance. They’re hoping that 2012 is the year, but I’m not sure it will be right now. They return a 3rd year starter in Sean Renfree at QB which is certainly encouraging, but he hasn’t ever had a very reliable run game to support him and that led to him throwing 434 passes for only 2,891 yards last season. The offensive line should be a solid but unspectacular group, and if they can help Desmond Scott and Juwan Thompson run the ball more effectively it should pay dividends for Renfree and the passing game. That would certainly please Conner Vernon as he attempts to chase ACC records as a wide receiver. The offense should be solid but not spectacular, but the real question mark is the defense.

The Duke defense actually has a few pretty talented players, but they have struggled to stay healthy and there isn’t a lot of quality depth to speak of. Two of the defense’s best players, defensive end Kenny Anunike and outside linebacker Kelby Brown, both suffered knee injuries last season and Duke just didn’t have the talent to replace them. I’m not convinced this is going to be the year that Duke gets to a bowl game, but I’ve been wrong before and I hate to doubt a team that’s been an underdog for so long like Duke has. Regardless, here are the prospects to keep an eye on for the Blue Devils:

Sean Renfree, QB- Renfree is a 6’5”, 230 pound quarterback who returns for his 3rd season as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback with 23 career starts. Last season he didn’t exactly blow the doors off the ACC as he passed for 2,891 yards, completed 65% of his 434 attempts and threw 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. It’s a positive trend from his first season as a starter as far as efficiency (18 TD’s, 19 INTs and 62% completion) but he threw for 570 less yards as a junior. He’s not a top prospect, but his combination of size, arm strength and football IQ will make him an attractive developmental prospect. I think Renfree is a near guarantee to get an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, and if that happens I will very much be looking forward to seeing him in person. If I’m lucky I’ll be at the Duke-UNC game this year to see him play well before that. Renfree is a draftable player, so it will be interesting to see how much he can boost his stock as a senior.

Desmond Scott, RB- Scott is a smaller, speedier back who is listed at 5’9”, 190 pounds. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with that frame since he has a respectable amount of weight packed onto it, but Scott has had a lot of issues staying healthy and durable throughout his career at Duke. He’s a talented back with plenty of speed and burst, and he catches the ball well out of the backfield, but unless he can stay healthy this year he won’t get drafted.

Juwan Thompson, RB*- Thompson filled in quite well for Scott while he was injured last season, rushing 110 times for 457 yards and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore. Thompson is a very different back than Scott, as he is listed at 5’11” and tips the scales at 230 pounds. He’s the thunder to Scott’s lightning, and I’m interested to see him play more this season. He really stepped up for them as a sophomore, so hopefully he can build on that as a junior.

Conner Vernon, WR- Vernon has been Duke’s most reliable pass catcher for what feels like forever, and now he enters his senior season with 32 career starts and is coming off a 70 catch, 956 yard, 6 touchdown season as a junior. He’s Renfree’s top target without a doubt, and runs good routes despite his lack of elite burst or acceleration. He has very reliable hands and catches the ball well outside of his frame which is critical for any receiver in my opinion. He’s a very fundamentally sound player, and while he won’t blow you away with his 40 yard dash time or any of his measurables he will come to play and offer a reliable pair of hands for anyone who throws a ball his way. That might not get him drafted very early, or perhaps even at all, but I think he will make a NFL roster.

Laken Tomlininson, OG**- Tomlinson is one of Duke’s best offensive linemen if he isn’t already the best. He’s young, and is entering his redshirt sophomore season this year, but the 6’3”, 315 pound right guard has plenty of upside. He’s nasty and aggressive which I love, but he is still raw and needs to improve his hand placement and his overall technique at this point. He’s got the upside though, so it will be interesting to see how well he takes coaching because if he works hard he could improve a lot and be one of the highest draft picks Duke has had in two decades.

Takoby Cofield, OT**- I know nothing about Cofield other than the fact that he is listed at 6’4”, 310 pounds, he started 2 games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman, and his name is actually Takoby.

Kenny Anunike, DE- Anunike is a converted tight end and despite getting a medical redshirt after starting only 3 games last season he still led the team in sacks with 4. That should paint the picture of how desperate Duke is for a pass rush, and that’s why Anunike coming back healthy is so critical for them. If he can stay healthy for the entire year he could turn his raw athleticism into 6-8 sacks or maybe even more if he’s worked on his technique. He’s listed at 6’5”, 255 pounds and if he stays healthy this year he has a chance to get drafted. Whether he does or not depends on how well his knee injury has healed and whether he is still just an athlete playing defensive end or a defensive end with a lot of athletic ability.

Kelby Brown, OLB*- Brown is one of Duke’s best defenders and it showed as he had 65 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks and 3 pass break-ups as a sophomore. He injured the ACL in his right knee on November 20th against Georgia Tech but reinjured the knee again in Februrary. I’m not sure what his status is for this upcoming season, but I think the best choice would be to sit out the year or to take a medical redshirt. He is just now 6 months removed from the injury and that’s definitely not enough time to recover from an injury that severe, especially since he reinjured it just a couple months after the original surgery. We’ll see if he plays this year, but if he does he absolutely won’t be at 100%.

Ross Cockrell, CB*- Cockrell is Duke’s best cover corner and is likely their top returning defensive back overall. Cockrell is listed at 6’0”, 180 pounds and has 4.5-4.55 speed according to the listing I found, but he has quality ball skills. As a redshirt freshman he totaled 7 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions and followed that up with 56 tackles, 1 TFL, 9 pass break-ups and 1 more interception as a sophomore. Now he is entering his junior season and while he may not be an athletic freak I think he has some potential as a NFL corner. He has to add weight in my opinion and work on his technique, but he has some fairly intriguing tools.

From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Yellow Jackets are poised for another productive year running the football with their triple option offense, and with an experienced and deep offensive line returning they have a chance to lead the nation in rushing yardage. They are waiting for a receiver or two to emerge, but as usual they have one or two ready to step up and stretch the field when the team wants or needs to pass. Tevin Washington, Orwin Smith and David Sims are the heart of the running game, and the offensive line is led by Omoregie Uzzi, Jay Finch and Will Jackson.

The defense is the unit that needs to step up, as they haven’t been great thus far under Al Groh’s base 3-4 defense. This year they have some unheralded talent along the defensive line along with a couple potential stars at linebacker in Jeremiah Attaochu and Quayshawn Nealy. In the secondary they have two quality corners in Rod Sweeting and Louis Young, and an up-and-coming safety in Isaiah Johnson. It all starts with the run defense, and if that improves and the pass rush gets a boost from Attaochu and others then the secondary’s job will get easier. It will be interesting to see how they do, and I predict that they will win 8-9 games and finish 3rd in the Coastal Division. And now, here are the prospects to keep an eye on:

Tevin Washington, QB- Most people are familiar with Washington as he is the face of Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple option offense, and consequently he carries the ball the most since he touches it on every play. Last season he passed just 150 times, completing 74 passes for 1,652 yards, 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He ran the ball 92 times more than he threw it, rushing 242 times for 986 yards and 11 touchdowns (4.1 ypc). This year the 6’1”, 205 pound quarterback/ball carrier enters his senior season and it will be interesting to see what he can produce. He’s obviously not a NFL quarterback, but he figures to get some attention as a running back prospect. The obvious problem with that is that he will have to get used to being handed the ball rather than touching it on every snap, but his experience reading keys and deciding whether to keep the ball or hand it off should help him transition to reading holes as a running back. It’s a tough transition, and it’s hard on evaluators, and that likely won’t help Washington’s case. I don’t know where to project him as a prospect right now, but gun to my head I’d say he’s a late round guy at this point.

Orwin Smith, RB- Smith is entering his senior season and he is coming off of a productive season, totaling 615 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 61 carries in addition to 13 receptions, 306 yards and another touchdown. Smith’s touches were limited, but his impact wasn’t. Now he is in his final season with the Yellow Jackets and he is being assessed for how well he transitions to the NFL. The problem is that all of those big plays are produced because of the scheme, not because he is a Reggie Bush/Barry Sanders caliber athlete. He is in the 4.5 range, and while that is respectable for a 6’0”, 202 pound running back it doesn’t quite line up with his 10.1 ypc average or his 23.5 average yards per reception. He contributes on kick-offs as well which helps him, but right now he’s a late round guy that is productive as a result of the scheme he plays in, and that’s going to be a tough designation to shake.

David Sims, RB*- Sims has a little bit of an easier time being projected to the NFL as he is playing the “B-Back” position that Jonathan Dwyer and Anthony Allen both parlayed into shots at the NFL while Smith plays the “A-Back” position which doesn’t transition as well. The B-Back is lined up directly behind the quarterback on a typical play, and will get the ball handed to him on the first read the quarterback is asked to make. Therefore, while it is a simple play and he doesn’t usually have to do a lot of reading of the defense, he is at least used to getting hand-offs, finding room to run and running with good pad level between the tackles. That makes the transition to the NFL easier, and Sims has a shot at the NFL. He’s listed at 6’0”, 218 pounds and has a listed 40 yard dash time in the 4.5’s (4.59 currently) but he has some potential as a power back. He was new to the position last year, so it will be interesting to see what damage he can do in his second year starting at the B-back spot.

Jeff Greene, WR**- Greene is the next receiver in line who is expected to take the nation by surprise with his combination of size, length and athletic ability. He didn’t have a single catch last year, but at 6’4”, 200 pounds and with 12 games of experience playing, even if he went without a catch, he is poised to break-out this year now that Stephen Hill has moved on to the NFL. He may not run a sub 4.4 like Hill did, but the coaching staff is excited about his upside and they expect a lot from him. He could very well lead GT in receiving this year despite not having a single catch a year ago. Only at Georgia Tech.

Jeremy Moore, WR*- Moore is even more under the radar than his teammate Green is, but he is listed at 6’3”, 180 pounds and while he wasn’t penciled into the starting line-up in the spring he fought his way up to a starting position and impressed the coaches. His former teammate Tyler Melton (take note, people who have first names that start with T and the last name Melton tend to be exceedingly brilliant) has said that he expects “Jeremy to be the surprise of the year” this season for Georgia Tech. That’s high praise, but according to Melton he has the speed, quickness and hands capable of surprising people this year. Most notably he said that he “doesn’t body catch. He snags everything out of the air.” That’s huge, especially for playing in this offense, because being able to catch less than accurate passes from triple-option quarterbacks means you have a bigger catch radius for them to throw to. That means more possible receptions, and those are few and far between in this run-first offense. Keep an eye on Moore, he has had trouble with injuries at Georgia Tech but I’m excited that he is finally getting his shot.

Ray Beno, OT*- Beno is the left tackle on the Yellow Jackets and he returns for his junior season with 12 career starts, all at left tackle, but according to Phil Steele he has experience playing at every spot along the offensive line. I was wondering if I should mention him or not, but that kind of versatility is quite rare and NFL teams are sure to take notice of that even if he doesn’t grade out as much more than a late rounder. At 6’2”, 290 pounds Beno is almost certainly going to be an interior lineman in the NFL but the versatility to play all over the offensive line is extremely important. I haven’t watched him before, but keep an eye on him over the next two years.

Omoregie Uzzi, OG- Uzzi may be the top NFL prospect on the Yellow Jackets right now, and I think he’s going to be considered a top 50 pick by the time the season is over. He has 24 career starts, all at right guard, and will be playing right guard again this season. He’s listed at 6’3”, 300 pounds and is a quality run blocker that is a natural knee bender, plays with good pad level and has some nastiness to him as well as a strong initial punch. I haven’t seen him much in pass protection, but then again that is bound to happen given the nature of Georgia Tech’s offense. His run blocking will garner him plenty of attention though, and if he can show some ability as a pass blocker his stock won’t dip out of the 2nd round.

Will Jackson, OG*- Jackson is a 6’3”, 285 pound junior who has 22 career starts all at left guard for the Yellow Jackets. He’s not a top prospect as of right now, but he’s a solid contributor who is someone to keep an eye on. He was a 1st team Freshman All American when he started 9 games as a freshman, and he returns to an experienced group as a junior. He isn’t the most physically imposing kid, but he’s tough and experienced. That will only become more evident as he continues to start more games, and he could realistically leave Georgia Tech with close to 50 starts by the end of his senior year.

Jay Finch, C*- Finch is the so-called “anchor” of the offensive line and returns for his junior season with 15 career starts, 12 of them at Center. He’s considered to have quality leadership, though I haven’t seen enough of him to know how often he makes line calls and adjustments to blocking schemes pre-snap. He’s considered to be a good athlete with plenty of quickness and good footwork. I haven’t seen much of him up to this point, but I’m expecting him to impress me this year as he has been named to the Rimington Watch List for the top center in the country.

Izaan Cross, DE- Cross is a 6’4”, 292 pound senior defensive end in Al Groh’s 3-4 defensive scheme. He returns for his senior season with plenty of experience in the form of 28 career starts, but he wasn’t as effective as some expected last year when he totaled 32 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble and 4 pass deflections. The previous year he had 41 tackles, 5 TFL and 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and four pass break-ups. It’s worth considering that in a 3-4 scheme like Groh’s the defensive line is expected to occupy blockers so that the linebackers can fill the gaps and stuff the run by tackling ball carriers in the gaps or forcing runs to be strung out towards the sidelines, so the defensive ends aren’t expected to be extremely productive on the stat line. Still, the dip in production was noticeable and it will be interesting to see how Cross does this year. I’m not that familiar with his game yet, so I’m interested to see whether he projects better to a 3-4 at DE or whether he might be better if he can penetrate upfield as a defensive tackle in a 4-3.

TJ Barnes, DT- Barnes is a gargantuan defensive tackle who will play nose tackle in Georgia Tech’s 3-4 defense this season. He was highly touted coming out of high school and during his redshirt year he wreaked consistent havoc playing on the scout team, causing coaches to salivate at his potential. He hasn’t lived up to it yet, however, and this season is his last shot. He returns for his senior season with just 3 career starts and despite playing in 13 games last season he only registered 11 tackles, 0.5 TFL and 1 sack. His conditioning has been a problem the past three years, but this year the 6’7”, 347 pound nose tackle is supposed to be in significantly better shape coming into this season. He spent extra time doing cardio and other conditioning workouts to get in better shape. It appears to be working, as offensive guard Will Jackson has claimed that Barnes is much quicker and more explosive off the ball. He’s got all the size and strength you could ask for in a nose tackle, particularly in a 3-4 defense, and if he has improved his conditioning enough he could be a very disruptive force for Georgia Tech this season. The problem with evaluating him will be evaluating if the light turned on just in time to boost his draft stock and his pay check, or whether the light came on and he is ready to potentially dominate as he gets in better shape and improves his hand usage and technique even more. I tend to shy away from one year wonders, but first Barnes has to have that one-year wonder season before we can try to determine whether it was a flash in the pan or not. Here’s hoping he has a great year and proves to be a dominant force in the middle of the Yellow Jacket defense.

Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB*- If Uzzi is the top prospect on Georgia Tech then Attaochu is a close second. The 6’3”, 235 pound outside linebacker possesses impressive athleticism, change of direction burst and edge speed to threaten offensive tackles off the edge. My problem with his game is his struggles once he is engaged. Like many talented edge rushers with impressive athleticism he has been able to get by on his athleticism alone, and hasn’t needed to bulk up to fight off blockers once he is engaged. He’s not a complete pass rusher yet, but he has the tools and skill set to be if he gets stronger, improves his hand usage and works to disengage from blockers better. He reminds me a little bit of the junior version of Von Miller, a talented speed rusher who wasn’t a complete defensive end/linebacker yet. But after he got a little stronger and improved his technique he ended up being the #2 overall pick in the draft. Attaochu may not be on Miller’s level, it’s too early to tell, but his athleticism is pretty rare and if his technique, functional strength and football IQ catches up with his athletic ability he’s going to be a very valuable commodity come draft time.

Quayshawn Nealy, OLB**- Nealy is a redshirt sophomore linebacker who the Georgia Tech coaches seem to be very excited about, particularly defensive coordinator Al Groh. Nealy has been spending a lot of time with Groh to help absorb the intricacies of the 3-4 defense better. He also added about 10 pounds of weight and is supposedly playing at about 235 pounds even though he is listed at just 6’1”, 223 pounds right now. Nealy has impressive athleticism, has been developing as a leader and I think he might be moving to one of the inside linebacker positions for the Yellow Jackets this season. I’ve read about him playing outside and also inside, so we will just have to wait and see on that front. Regardless, Nealy made the most of his appearances last season, including 7 starts, as he made 52 tackles, 3 TFL, broke up 3 passes and had 2 interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in Georgia Tech’s bowl game last season. He’s got a lot of ability, and as the game slows down for him and he continues to fill out he has the potential to be a special player, particularly if he keeps absorbing as much of Groh’s defensive knowledge as he has already.

Rod Sweeting, CB- Sweeting is returning for his senior season with only 13 career starts but considerable playing experience while not designated as a starter. He had 7 pass break-ups and an interception as a sophomore in 13 games, and then started 13 games as a junior and totaled 56 tackles, 3 TFL, 10 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions. He’s not the biggest corner despite being listed at 6’0”, 184 pounds and could stand to add more weight to his tall frame. He’s a good athlete though, and most importantly he has smooth hips and transitions well when changing directions. As evidenced by his statistics as well as his play, he has quality ball skills and that is something that is incredibly important for defensive backs because I’m not convinced it can be coached up very well. You either have those skills or you don’t, and Sweeting has them. He’s a mid-round guy right now, but if he has a consistent senior season he could crack the top 100 selections in April. I expect him to be at the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game this winter.

Louis Young, CB*- Young is another tall corner, listed at 6’1”, but weighs 201 pounds and is much more filled out than Sweeting is right now. He may be more physically gifted, but he doesn’t have as much playing experience as Sweeting does and it shows. Young has shown he is no stranger to contact though, and seems to enjoy tackling which evaluators will love to see. He seems to mirror receivers well and has impressive quickness too. He is supposedly a very hard worker on and off the field and if he continues to work that hard it’s almost a virtual certainty that his play on the field will continue to improve exponentially. Now that he has a full season as a starter under his belt (12 starts, he was suspended for the bowl game for a violation of team rules) Young figures to improve on his 52 tackles, 3 TFL, 5 pass break-ups and 1 interception stat-line from his sophomore year. He has a lot of upside, so it is going to be fun to watch this secondary this season.

Isaiah Johnson, FS*- Johnson is a junior this season yet he returns with 16 starts to his name. He started all 13 games last season and was second on the team in tackles with 78 and also had 2 TFL, 1 sack, 3 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions to boot. He seems to have taken on a bit of a leadership role on the defense, and I’m excited to see the 6’2”, 205 pound center play more this season. I think he has a lot of potential.